(Part one of two)
After more than a year of living in a global pandemic, rates of gender-based violence – especially intimate partner violence – remain high. Media have focused unheard-of attention on what the United Nations has labelled a shadow pandemic. As a result, public awareness is greater than it has ever been, and governments seem to have finally realized that they need provide meaningful leadership in addressing the situation.
The recent federal budget, as I wrote here two weeks ago, offers a strong beginning. $600 million over the next five years has been allocated to build and implement a National Action Plan (NAP) to end Gender-Based Violence, with $14 million directed to the development of the plan itself. There’s money for gender-based violence organizations and GBV prevention programs. More money for programs to make free legal advice and representation available to survivors of sexual assault and to establish similar pilot projects for survivors of intimate partner abuse across the country. Still more for the development of supervised access services across the country, to try to increase the safety of women and children fleeing family violence.
With a dedicated Secretariat within the Department of Women and Gender Equality to lead and oversee the development and implementation of the NAP, the possibilities feel real.
Women dealing with intimate partner abuse have faced new challenges during the pandemic. It’s more difficult to go into a shelter: public health protocols requiring physical distancing have meant that most shelters are offering fewer beds than usual; women, understandably, are fearful about congruent living during a pandemic; pandemic policies and procedures can make it difficult for women living in a shelter to honour family court orders requiring the children to spend time with their father.
In order to minimize spread of the virus, both criminal and family court operations have been reduced. Only the most urgent cases are being heard, and most court-related services (duty counsel, VWAP, Family Law Information Centres, etc.) are being provided remotely. This has had a dramatic impact on women.
On the criminal law front, for example, more men who have been charged because of abusing their partner are being released on bail, in order to keep the number of people in jails as low as possible. Criminal courts are not holding peace bond hearings, leaving some women without important protection.
Family court, like criminal court, is operating remotely, which creates both advantages and barriers for women leaving an abusive relationship. A remote hearing means a woman doesn’t have to go face to face with her abuser in person, which can both feel and be safer. However, there are many who do not have access to or are not confident using the technology required to complete and file documents online and then to appear in court via video or telephone conference. And, while not being physically present in court is safer for some women, it is unsafe for others. A tech-savvy abuser can use electronic communication to harass, threaten and intimidate his former partner leading up to and even during the court proceeding.
To respond to our increased reliance on technology over the past year, tech companies have been only too willing to offer an ever broader array of tools and devices, some of which have been a gift to abusers.
Apple’s announcement last week of its $29 (US) Air Tags location-tracking fob is a perfect example of this. No doubt, an Air Tag — the size of a quarter and able to locate your keys, backpack or purse anywhere in the world — will be a godsend to people who leave a trail of belongings behind them wherever they go. However, it has the potential to be a weapon in the hands of an abuser because, along with those lost keys, it can also locate a person.
The National Network to End Domestic Violence sits on advisory boards for FB, Twitter, Snapchat and Uber and has advised both Google and Apple. It points out that Air Tags are “a worrisome surveillance tool that could be leveraged by an abuser to discreetly track a partner. An Air Tag simply needs to be slipped into someone’s bag or jacket pocket to track exactly where they go.”
Apple says its device discourages stalking because it alerts anyone who has an iPhone that an Air Tag that isn’t theirs is “moving with you.” The company does not provide information about how quickly this alert is provided, which means it is of limited value to a woman who doesn’t want her former partner to know where she is living — she may well have come and gone from her new home before she is notified that she is being Air Tagged. And, if she does not have an Apple device, she won’t be notified at all.
Given the small size of the Air Tag, it’s not hard to see how a woman without an Apple device might be unaware of it for days or even longer. And, if a child is going back and forth between their parents, the abuser could easily hide a new Air Tag in a kid’s backpack or toy every time he sees the child.
Back to the NAP
Other recent developments – the charging of a woman for violating the publication ban In a sexual assault criminal case where she was the complainant, the outrageously severe sentencing of Helen Naslund, who killed her husband after more than 30 years of horrific abuse, the introduction (and quick loss) of Bill 274 in Ontario and the recent report from the federal Standing Committee on Justice and Human Rights on coercive controlling behaviour in intimate relationships – make this the perfect time for Canada to develop and implement a NAP to end GBV.
Stay tuned for part two.